A Stepdaughter Speaks

18 11 2008

Note from Jacquelyn: The following essay is about an extremely important part of stepfamily life that few of us talk about until we're in the middle of it-how we will work with our stepchildren as we age. In A Career Girl's Guide to Becoming a Stepmom I talk about how critical it is to do your estate planning for the sake of everyone in your family. But it's not just the money you need to think about, as this poignant essay by Janet shows.

Letter From a Stepdaughter

By Janet

When my father remarried ten years ago at age 74 (six years after my mother died), I didn't think much about becoming a member of a stepfamily. After all, my two siblings and I were in our forties, as were her two children, and we all lived in different states. We met at the wedding, toasted the new couple, had a group picture taken, and that was about the extent of our "family time." While it felt a little strange to see him with someone else after 45 years of marriage to my mother, I was relieved that he had found love and companionship again.

Dad sold the family home in Ohio and moved into his new wife's condo in Florida, which wasn't too far from her daughter's home. Life moved along, with yearly visits back and forth, until the health problems started.

A couple years ago, my father had some kind of surgery on his pancreas, although neither he nor my stepmother have been able to tell us for sure what it involved. (They come from a generation where doctors are revered and never questioned.) Since that surgery, he hasn't had much of an appetite, and when we saw him at my nephew's wedding a couple years ago, he was quite thin and frail and his memory seemed to be slipping. My stepmother wasn't able to attend that family wedding because her then-103-year-old father had come to live with them, and he didn't like being left alone with strangers to care for him. Because of the situation with her father, she also has not accompanied my father when he's flown to Ohio for Christmas the past few years-our family gathers at my sister's home to celebrate the holiday together. She is quite close to her grandson and prefers to celebrate the holidays with her daughter's family. Fair enough.

The "crisis" came last August, when we got a call from my father's neighbors in Florida telling us that he was in the hospital about to have an emergency triple bypass. He had been in for a routine physical and when the stress test results came back, they showed an almost complete blockage of two main arteries. He had been hospitalized immediately. In the meantime, though, my stepmother had left for two-week cruise in the Mediterranean, assisting her daughter, who is a travel agent, with a large tour. My father is not much of a traveler, so she and her daughter often go on trips together. She had made arrangements for two neighbors to check in on my father and her father (now 105) and hadn't mentioned to us (nor to the doctor examining my father) that she was leaving the country. While my siblings and I have no problem with her taking a vacation, we were concerned that she had gone off without letting us know-and that she had left our increasingly frail father to care for her now-105-year-old father.

My sister, who is retired and is battling breast cancer, immediately flew to Florida to be with my father during the surgery, but she was unable to stay more than a few days because of some medical appointments of her own. My brother then took a week off work and flew down to be with my father until our stepmother returned. We had contacted her onboard the ship with the news of the operation and, while we didn't expect her to cut her trip short, we did think it odd that she didn't call my father at the hospital while she was away.

When she returned and we expressed our concern about the way things had been handled, she confessed to being overwhelmed with caregiving, something she had never mentioned before. It appears my father has become increasingly forgetful and is losing his balance, so she doesn't feel she can leave him alone. Yet when her doctor said she needed a break, her daughter whisked her away on the cruise and she didn't protest.

When we spoke to her daughter (whom I have never thought of as a stepsister and hardly know), she was upset about her mother's health and mental state because of all the caregiving. She brought up the fact that we had not flown down to be with him years before for his pancreatic surgery. At the time, though, we had no idea about the severity of the operation, as both my father and stepmother downplay any health concerns.

Now it turns out my father may have vascular dementia, although we won't know until he's fully recovered from the bypass surgery. Although we've encouraged our stepmother to hire a home healthcare worker to assist her so she's not so burdened, she's reluctant to do so because her father is resistant to strangers in the home. Since we live far away and have responsibilities of our own, it is difficult to know what to do at this point. As my sister says, "If he lived near me, I could help him, but they made the decision to get married and live in Florida."

Sometimes when I talk with my father on the phone, he sounds fine. Other times, he sounds confused and unsure of what day it is. I know that my father is not the easiest person to deal with; we have never been close. Since he weighs so little now, for the past few years he's been unable to hold his liquor, which has led to some embarrassing scenes at parties. My stepmother has limited the number of drinks he can have, and we follow her guidelines whenever he's with us. All this to say that I doubt my stepsister has much love for him; she's concerned about her own mother. Her brother lives in another state with his family and doesn't seem to be involved much.

As we continue to deal with my father's decline and my stepmother's denial, I imagine that the day will come when my siblings and stepsiblings will have to make some difficult choices. I worry that our lack of connection and communication will complicate what are already sensitive matters. I think back to when my mother died, and I know it's hard enough dealing with end-of-life decisions when you just have your nuclear family to consider; adding almost-strangers to the mix is a factor that, frankly, I don't welcome. I can only trust that, deep down, we all want what's best for our parents. They made a vow ten years ago to love one another for better or worse, in sickness or in health. They had some good years together, though not as many as my parents had. Now comes the hard part. For all of us.


The Doctor is In: Cynthia D. Rudick, Ph.D.

18 11 2008

Guest blogger Cynthia D. Rudick, Ph.D., has been counseling stepfamilies in her private practice for 20 years. She’s a professional mediator and arbitrator in Canton, Ohio, who is also an adjunct professor in graduate counseling programs. For the past 16 years she’s been stepmother of two, now ages 23 and 28. She lives with her husband and two yellow labs. Contact her at 330-492-2941 or email her.

Bonding or Bondage in Stepfamilies: The Choice is Yours
One of the hardest challenges for stepmothers and women in general is to balance their needs with everyone else’s. We are taught from birth to care for others and feel guilty if we think about ourselves. Raising children is a full-time commitment. Raising stepchildren is an overtime commitment. The challenges are huge, the rewards are not immediate, and the conflict can be intense.

Perhaps the most difficult time to enter a child’s life is during their teens. If we are a good parent, we have a need to connect and nurture. Yet this child is experiencing a need to separate, a need to resist what is and find out who he or she is. Developmentally, we are on two different planets. Many battles and deep wounds can follow.

One of the only ways I can justify the slings and arrows of life is to be aware of my transcendent purpose. What I mean is to think about the lessons in this experience that are personal and dynamic for me in a spiritual sense.

Our expectations keep us in resistance to situations we encounter in the reality of our lives. Reality is occurring, but we think it should be different. Our peace of mind or lack of it is measured in the space between reality and our expectations.

Stepmothers are idealistic people. We believe we can create a family where there was already one. Idealistic people have a big space between their expectations and reality. Pain is the result of the distance we feel in the space between how things are and how things should be. We need to work on our growth as individuals instead of trying to get someone else to change.

Our childhoods mark us and we have ideas of ourselves formed early in life – what kind of person we have to be, how we think life should be, how we think others should be. We need to work on our core issues and our own growth if we are to stay married. Women who have done this deep work have developed good relationships over time with their stepchildren. I define a good relationship as an honest one. And we cannot be any clearer with others than we are with ourselves.

 Again, it takes so much time to form a family where there already was one. For example, women often enter a family and then things hit the fan when the stepchild becomes a teenager. The child resists the rules in the stepmother and dad’s home because the birth mother requires no rules. Thus, chaos ensues. The child threatens to go live with their mother. Stepmothers need to hold to the high ground and not be deterred by terrorist threats.

Setting an Example is the High Road
I think we model who we are and how we live by example. This is a much more powerful message than all the words we use. Later in life, when the immature teenager develops beyond the lacks of the birth parent they are tied to, they will understand the guard rail you tried to provide for them. Be proud of your mission here. It may be singular but it is a powerful assignment. Children need to learn these living skills from you even though they may offer extreme resistance.

Model Your Own Virtue in the Face of Powerlessness
Again, it is not so much what we say but who we are that provides such a powerful model for others. Believe in yourself. Teach by example. Yelling and fighting just increase your lack of power. In fact, the louder you yell, the more powerless you feel, and vice versa.

Patience is a Virtue in the Face of Powerlessness
Sometimes our timing is off. We want things to happen now. We want things to change now. These patterns in ourselves and others are firmly planted and it takes time and energy to shake them up.

Don’t Take It Personally Even Though It May Be Hurtful
It takes a long time to build trust. Stepchildren have been hurt by broken relationships and promises. Sometimes the person they lash out at is us – because we are there and we are safe. This is a very backhanded compliment. Behavior can be hurtful, even though it is not personal. Try to find a way to process your feelings. Try to find a method to detach from others’ projections when you have done little to cause the anger. Talk to yourself. Talk to others. Take a walk. Scream. Cry.

Journal, Journal, Journal
One of the safest most private ways to vent emotions is on the pages of a journal. This is a great tool for healing. Also, with enough unexpurgated, unedited journal writing, you will begin to see patterns in your life that you need to change.

Do Some Deep Core Work
Do some mining into your inner recesses with a trained professional. There’s a stigma about going to therapy. I see myself as a coach. We are Americans and we want a quick fix. But to really change, we need to work in the deep end of the pool. Some self-help programs and books only put “whipped cream on poop” and the original problems still smell. I encourage you to do the deep work necessary on your inner life. We change from the inside out. It will pay off in the end. And you are worth it.

Compassion Beats Competition

12 11 2008

Diane FrommeThanks to Diane Fromme, the author of Stepparenting the Grieving Child, for asking me to be a guest blogger at Mama J’s Parenting Posts. Here’s an excerpt from the post I wrote, “Compassion Beats Competition” about the tough relationship between stepmothers and stepdaughters.

“Studies show that girls often exhibit more anxiety than boys do after a remarriage. This is an important fact for stepparents to keep in mind. While conducting interviews of stepmoms across the country, I was told more than once that stepmothers were concerned that instead of bonding over shared interests with their stepdaughters, they were in a competition for Dad’s attention and affection.”

If you’ve got stepdaughters, check out the rest of the post at Diane’s blog.

Stepmoms Speak

12 11 2008

Christina Hines is the author of Navigational Skills for Stepfamilies. The following is an excerpt from her book. Used with permission.

Lack of Awareness

When we navigate without awareness, we still remember the “Wicked” Stepmother in our Cinderella stories. We live inside the lingo, the language of “Broken Homes” and “Step” and everyone suffers on all levels. “Broken” takes on a tone as If there is something fundamentally wrong that will always be fundamentally wrong. Step has a tone as if someone is stepping on someone else’s toes or property, as if by stepping “in and on” you are doing something morally illegal.

Inside of this broken stepping on toes limited thinking…. 

We teach our children that love has conditions. “You are free to love everyone! Except the woman who now lives with your father.”

We provide our children with “Disney Land” weekends to ease the guilt we feel inside of us for not being there in the day-to-day.

We get divorced and cling fiercely to making sure our children experience “family traditions” only we don’t stop to understand what we are really doing to them.

Let’s see how this works. We tell our children “Get dressed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, put your jacket on – you are going to Dad’s for three hours to have his tradition. Next, while you are in mid-play, you will need to put your jacket back on, come back home, we’ll drive to grandma’s and have our tradition (notice, at Dad’s you had HIS tradition but when you are with me, you are having “Our” tradition.) Take your jacket off and then mid-play, you will need to put your jacket back on. Next; we will get back in the car, drive to our house. Take off your jacket it’s time for bed! Now wasn’t that fun?

Children literally spend half of the day in the car. A quarter of the day taking their jackets off and putting their jackets back on.  A quarter of the day just digging into a wonderful play experience only to have it cut short once again.

Family traditions start to take on a tone of hurry up, let’s go, wasn’t that fun and we do this for your sake. Children’s little heads spin. They can’t remember whom they are playing with and everything feels to the child like there isn’t enough time. We literally teach our children how to not focus fully. We teach our children how not to experience something fully and then we label and medicate them when they can’t seem to focus.

More of what’s Inside of this broken stepping on toes limited thinking…

We send them over to the other parent’s house exclaiming “Oh I will miss you so much while you are gone,” and then the child spends half the time at the other parent’s house worrying about how lonely and upset the other parent is with visions of the “missing” parent crying missing them so much and unable to enjoy their time fully because they are too busy worrying about the other parent’s experience. We teach our children to always feel like something is missing.

We get out of one relationship to get right back into the “same” relationship with someone else or we go for someone completely different and spend all our time comparing, complaining and “pining” for what we no longer have when we didn’t enjoy what we had when we had it. Never fully enjoying our present moments.

We watch a child grow and develop and we have reverence for the process yet we have no tolerance and lack reverence, time or patience for the emotional evolutionary process of growth and development that needs to happen inside of marriages or inside of divorces or our remarriages.

We treat our children like partners and our partners like children.

We ignore our pain, bury it, pretend it doesn’t exist and we hide behind children using them as an excuse on why we can’t move on or worse, we use them like bait on a fishing rod to attract a potential parent for them verses trying to attract a partner for us who will eventually be a good stepparent.

We set our new relationships up to be stressful and chaotic because we didn’t take the time to process our emotions and then we get mad at our new partner for expecting us to be fully present to them.

We expect our new partners to love and accept our children and us unconditionally while we don’t accept and love them unconditionally.

We set the stepparent up by sabotaging their relationship with our children by bending the rules when the stepparent isn’t home or by blatantly coming out and saying, “I don’t mind but your stepmother is on my back.”

We set our children up to feel abandoned and to resent the person who does what we do for our children – by allowing our children to sleep in bed with us at night and then “kicking” them out when an adult comes into the picture.

We blame the “other” parent when our children lie, manipulate or act out on our time with the children. We say the children are doing that because of who the other parent is and oh what a great parent we are.

 We blame the stepparent for pointing out our children’s behaviors and focus on the stepparent instead of focusing on parenting our children 

Women walk around comparing themselves to each other while competing for who’s better, prettier, has a better body, looks younger, makes more money, has a better house. As if a child cares about any of those things. (Who is that really about?)

Men are so confused, not knowing who to listen to, the biological mother or the stepmother. Knowing perfectly well that he’s completely screwed either way, lying to each woman causing more problems for themselves crying, “Women are crazy people!”

We haven’t learned to “play nice” inside of our adult relationships while we tell our children to “play nice” with others. Or, we no longer care about teaching our children how to play nice, we would rather they think of only themselves. We haven’t learned to share the joys of child rearing while we tell our child to share or, we tell our children that they don’t have to share. We haven’t learned to respect each other while we tell children to respect others or, we don’t care if our children respect others and enjoy our children’s ability to be fully self expressed to the point of pure rudeness. We play a lot of ego oriented superficial games and waste our time and life energy on things that do not matter and have absolutely nothing to do with our children.

With all or half of this going on inside of the lives of stepfamilies, it’s easy to see why there is so much stress involved. Most of it has nothing to do with being a parent or having a child. Children are not the problem at all. Most of it has to do with our inability to navigate the issues that belong to us.


The Doctor Is In: Susan D. Stewart (Part One)

12 11 2008

Susan Stewart 2Susan D. Stewart is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Iowa State University who studies non-traditional families. Her book, Brave New Stepfamilies, is a compilation of the current data about stepfamilies and a call-to-action to researchers who leave out the many types of stepfamilies that exist when they conduct studies.

Consider these two quotes from Brave New Stepfamilies: “This book contends that prevailing definitions of stepfamilies dramatically underestimate their prevalence and that if researchers included in their definition of stepfamilies all of the diverse forms, it is likely that the majority of Americans have or will have the experience of living in a stepfamily.”

“Most Americans are living in or will live in family forms that are considered abnormal by the dominant culture.”

Stewart is also a stepdaughter and a divorced mom who has contemplated remarriage herself. This interview will be posted in two parts.

Could you talk a little bit about your interest in working on stepfamilies?

Probably some of my motivation for getting involved in stepfamily research was my own background. My parents divorced when I was 8 and then my dad, pretty soon after became involved with a woman and they lived together for over 10 years before they got married. My dad lived with her and her children. Meanwhile, my mom remained single and we lived with her primarily. And so I felt like I didn’t really know what that was. I thought of myself as being in a single-parent family, but at the same time I had a relationship with this woman and her kids whom I see on holidays and it just didn’t seem that there was any kind of place for that family dynamic.

And then my dad and his wife did get married and so now they would be considered more of a traditional stepfamily, but all the kids were grown up by the time they got married all the kids were adults. So they are family but they didn’t fit neatly into the categories of stepfamily that I’d seen in the literature. It is usually couples who get remarried when their kids are younger and they live in the house. That was the only research that I saw. There are very few studies of any other type. And then my mom, after 30 years of being single, just remarried two years ago. Now I have this person that’s her husband in my life. I really like him and we get along well but I am an adult and they are both nearing retirement age. I’m not really sure what to call him. Meanwhile, my dad has been remarried for over 20 years and so that relationship has changed over time but what I was seeing in the literature was the same old definition of what a stepfamily is with none of this complexity reflected.

That’s why I wanted to write Brave New Stepfamilies and point out the few studies that have looked at stepfamily development over time, stepfamilies that are formed later on in the life course, and stepfamilies that start with co-habitation. That led to other ideas about gay and lesbian couples who form a type of stepfamily, racial and ethnic diversity in stepfamilies, and non-marital childbearing and how that affects stepfamilies because those would be first-married families but the child isn’t the biological child of one of the parents and so what is that? How does that fit in?

Did you find that families felt abnormal if they don’t fit the mold? I believe that does something to the psyche of the individuals even when it’s likely that alternative family structures are the majority. I’ve talked to so many people who feel shameful when asked to describe their family.

Exactly. It seems so wrong, when we still hold up this very traditional notion of a family-a nuclear family with a mom and a dad and the kids and it’s intact. Usually the dad is the main breadwinner and we still think the ideal type is with the mom staying home and taking care of the children, especially when they’re little. But looking at the numbers, those families only represent 7 percent of all households in the United States. So a tiny, tiny portion of Americans live that way. If you take out the breadwinner, homemaker piece, because most women work today, you’re still only talking about 1 in 4 families or households with married couples who have children under the age of 18. And so it’s incredible that we still grasp on to this notion when most people are living in other ways.

It’s not necessarily that people are getting divorced in higher numbers then they were. The divorce rate has been pretty stable for the last 20 years or so but it’s that people are delaying marriage later and later. We see co-habitation replacing some of the delay in marriage. People are living together, not getting married right away. They are delaying having kids, so there is much, much more diversity and we don’t really talk about it.

I was just divorced a little over a year ago myself and I’m from New York state and know a lot of divorced people and my parents are divorced. I had no idea how I would feel. I never thought I would feel that bad. But I really felt stigmatized, ashamed, and embarrassed. It seemed like people avoided me or didn’t know what to say to me or were uncomfortable. Some sociologists have talked about how the stigma about non-traditional families has declined so much that we shouldn’t really worry about it, but I disagree. My experience is that the stigma is alive and well. And in fact in more conservative religions there’s been a real backlash again non-traditional families. There’s a real focus on returning to the traditional model because that’s best. And more and more Americans are involved in new religions, evangelical-type religions that are more conservative in their orientation. When I have done research with my students on attitudes and perceptions of non-traditional families, divorce, and non-marital childbearing, there is a strong religious component. If people have strong feelings about it, it’s because of their faith.

When we’ve interviewed family members and friends about their attitudes, it seems like suddenly the people who are in the baby boom generation are more open and progressive than some younger people today. Other writers have been talking about this return, a re-stigmatization of divorce. Back when I was growing up there were shows on TV about single moms like One Day at a Time and Alice and it was more positive. Today I don’t really see much movement even though the numbers say different. I think that’s bad for people. It’s troubling because so many people then who aren’t living in the traditional model, especially kids, might feel bad. For instance, my preschool cannot grasp the idea that they need to give us two copies of the calendar. I have to remind them every time.

From a purely demographic prospective you would think we would be much farther along. But the United States is different than a lot of European countries where people are much more accepting and they have much more progressive ideas of family life-co-habitation rates are higher, divorce rates are higher, marriage rates are lower, fertility rates are lower. Yet we are supposed to be the world leaders. We are supposedly the leader of all the industrialized countries and yet we seem really backward in many ways.

The Doctor Is In: Susan D. Stewart (Part Two)

12 11 2008

Susan StewartSusan D. Stewart is a sociologist at Iowa State University and the author of Brave New Stepfamilies. The is part two of our interview.

How do you conduct your research?

My research involves secondary data analysis. So these days there are numerous nationally representative data sets of children and families that contain all kinds of information about family living arrangements, measures of well-being for children and adults, depression, juvenile delinquency, and academic achievement. It costs millions of dollars to put those together so it’s very high-quality data. My research has mostly been analyzing data and looking for patterns. I’ve done a lot of work on non-resident parents-parents without custody of their kids-visitation patterns, and child support. Now I’m contemplating collecting my own data because I’ve found that states are mandating joint custody. They have just passed a law in Iowa that assumes joint custody and so what this means is that if a couple gets divorced it means if both spouses want custody of their child then they get shared custody. In other words you would have to prove that your spouse is mentally ill or a drug addict or abusive in court. It used to be the courts were much more in favor of one spouse getting custody and the other having visiting rights. I think a lot of this is motivated by the men’s movements with Alec Baldwin leading the charge. Conservative men who are feeling like they don’t have control over their children and their families. The worry is that men will choose shared custody to get out of paying child support. I get no child support even though I only make two-thirds of what my ex-husband makes because apparently judges don’t like to quibble over small amounts. It’s a worrisome trend.

Why this relates to my research is because most of the national data sets are based on this model of custodial parent, non-custodial parent. Parents today are increasingly both custodial and non-custodial. One weekend a resident parent, the next weekend a non-resident parent because we switch back and forth every week. I think it’s horrible. I hate it. I don’t think it’s good for my child. The effects of it are not known. Any studies that have been conducted on joint custody have shown that kids do better than kids raised by single parents. Yes, but a decade or two ago, the kids in joint custody were a very select group of children. The parents got a long and chose this and cooperated. But this is now being forced on people. I had no choice. My ex-husband wanted to have custody of our daughter too, and he is not so flawed that anybody would say no. I think more and more states are moving toward this model. And it’s good in some ways. It’s not good for kids to not be involved with their dad. But I’m not sure for the general population that this should be mandated. I don’t know what the effects are going to be.

And so I want to study this and it would involve collecting my own data because the studies out there right now either put children in categories of resident, non-resident in situations where it’s really much more of a shared arrangement. We just don’t have the numbers to accurately study. That’s what I’m working on. Of course, it’s partly motivated by my own experience.

These non-traditional family structures are here to stay. What do you think stepfamilies, cohabitating couples with kids, and gay and lesbian couples need in order to be successful?

Trying to fit yourself into the traditional model never works. I think the biggest mistake new stepparents make is to try to operate as a traditional parent. Usually what happens is, especially with discipline, they do the discipline before the relationship has really developed. And so that sets up a bad dynamic because you need the love, the emotional connection in order for the child to respect the discipline and monitoring by the stepparent. I feel like there should be more of a backing off for everybody. Be patient and allow time for relationships to develop.

When I was contemplating getting remarried, he became way too involved with my daughter too soon and then the relationship didn’t work out. And stepfamilies do have higher rates of dissolution than traditional families. Then we are left with a child who says, “Where is the stepdad?” Well it didn’t work out. But really it was not even a year relationship. I do think that a big problem is we have the Dr. Laura view on divorce, which is people who get divorced should be punished which means they should not be dating. You should be in this self-imposed exile for your sins. You’re never supposed to bring your child around any partners. You’re never supposed to have your boyfriends or girlfriends sleep over. Basically you’re supposed to live like a monk for the next two years, which is how long people think it takes get through a divorce. I don’t agree with that. I think people move in and out of children’s lives a lot. They make new friends. So it’s not that you shouldn’t have new people in their lives, but just don’t get them too involved too soon.

And the stepparent should not get too involved. I think a lot of men do this. They want to take care of a woman and her children and be the head of household, be the disciplinarian. That’s how men are trained to be, and I think that can be bad especially if the children are really involved with their dad. For stepmoms, I think the biggest mistake there is that women are more in charge of taking care of children in the house and they put the new stepmom in that role unfairly so she is stuck with a lot of yucky routine jobs taking care of the house and the children. When that relationship should also be given time to develop. I think stepmoms have it particularly bad. I said this in my book-it’s the hardest role in a stepfamily because you have all the pressures of being a mom and all the scrutiny of being a stepmom on top of that without any of the support. So you are thrust into this role and you may not have even wanted it. You may have no experience with children, but everyone expects you to be this instantly fabulous mother.

I also think the finances should be talked about ahead. All of this should be talked about. There is one older study that shows a very tiny proportion of remarried couples actually talk about these things before they get married. They think it will all work out. I think people should talk. How are you going to manage the money? How will decisions be made? Set up some scenarios and see how you would respond and what your partner thinks of that. It’s not very romantic, but it’s a good idea.

What about the biological parents? What advice would you give them?

For women who are the biological parent in the stepfamily I think it’s easy to give up control over your own kids. And I would caution women to not do that. And same thing with biological dads. I would encourage a co-parent relationship between both biological parents. There has to be an acknowledgement that increasingly there’s going to be more of a role of the non-resident parent. And it’s better if everyone can communicate and get along. It’s asking a lot, certainly, but for the kids…I am very mixed about it. I’m a sociologist and parenting is socially constructed so you don’t necessarily have to be a biological parent to be a good parent. But because these relationships are so knew I think the biological parents are really the ones who know their child the best. Whether that’s because they are biologically related or they’ve just spent the most time with their kids. Don’t try to be an instant family. Accept who you are. And that these children are going to grow up with multiple parents which can be really good. What can be better for kids than to have more adults invested and paying attention to them as opposed to less?    

In the book Between Two Worlds, author Elizabeth Marquardt talks about how children are stuck in the middle of their biological parents. And sometimes exes don’t realize the negativity they are passing along to their children. What do you think about that?

I felt really bad today because my husband and I went to a parent-teacher conference where it was revealed that my child doesn’t seem as happy go lucky as the other kids. She’s nervous and sort of lashes out if people want to interrupt her game playing. She gets very anxious about her clothes and weird stuff like that. And as I was sitting there with my ex-husband it wasn’t going well. He was doing a lot of stuff and I was doing a lot of stuff that was really just about us. We probably looked awful to this teacher. She was really good. She said, “I always ask myself, would I be this concerned if the child had two parents who were married or is it that I know that she has to go back and forth between two parents and am I making these issues out to be more than they really are?” It’s really hard. I know better. And my ex-husband should know better. But at the same you have to be careful to not attribute all of your kid’s behaviors to the fact that she’s coming from a broken home. That’s a big mistake. Kids have their personalities. I am a nervous person by nature. So is my ex-husband. Maybe that’s just my daughter’s personality.  

I always bring up this point, too. When you look at our European counterparts in Sweden and France and Germany where they have much more family diversity, if you look at the measurements of well-being over there they do much better than us. Kids raised in Sweden, for example, chances are their parents weren’t married when they were born. Most of the parents in Sweden are co-habitating when they have their first baby and divorce rates are extremely high. Denmark has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, but if you look at all the indicators for children’s well-being, they are doing better than us academically, they have less delinquency, they have lower infant mortality. Pretty much any measure of children’s well-being, they do better than us. I think it has to do with the fact that there is a lot more support there for family diversity.

In Sweden, co-habitating couples receive the same benefits from the government as married couples. There’s national healthcare. There’s paid maternity leave for husbands and wives. There’s subsidized preschool. There’s so much more help for families. In the U.S. you’re just on your own. We consider raising families a very private matter in the United States and it’s a terrible thing. You’ve somehow failed if your children don’t turn out. You have not done your job. We have less support than pretty much any other country like us. I think for people raised in non-traditional families it’s even worse. It’s really a mistake to blame family breakdown for the problems that children have. It’s one of many factors, but maybe if we looked at families differently, took a more broad approach, then we wouldn’t have so many issues with this.

When I talk to stepfamilies it’s easy to see that the whole idea of not feeling supported really affects their self-worth.

Yes. You pass that anxiety along to your kids. You might be a more permissive parent because you feel so guilty, but that’s not good for kids. Or you might go the other way and you worry about how your child is going to be perceived. I think the guilt factor is absolutely huge. And then parents not feeling self-worth pass it down to their kids. My ex-husband thinks that divorce is the worse thing in the world. That it is the greatest tragedy. Well of course our daughter internalizes that. He believes there could be nothing worse than having divorced parents, which I don’t believe. There are many things that are negative in life and this is one. I wouldn’t call it a positive thing necessarily unless there’s a lot of conflict there. The huge weight people put on intact marriage I think is really displaced.

S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Unyielding Hope

5 11 2008

“Change has come to America.” Regardless of your political views, last night Obama gave a masterful victory speech. He said many powerful statements, but I’d like to bring up one that in my mind applies particularly well to stepfamily life. When Obama said our “unyielding hope,” is part of the true genius of our country, I thought of the stepmothers, stepparents, biological parents, and stepchildren who are out there struggling every day to create a home that feels good to be in. I thought of all the people returning to relationships after being hurt because of that same sense of hope. We hope we can create a family life in which conflict is not a way of life, but a rare occurance.  We hope that love and respect will overcome the differences between family members who don’t share blood.

But as Obama said last night, “We are one people.” If you have joined a stepfamily, can you readjust your thinking so that you can unite your stepfamily just as Obama wants to do with our country? What holds back your progress as a happy, healthy stepfamily? Can you earn the support of your stepchildren? Can you make peace with the exes in your lives? Can you create a bond with your partner that is so strong you can withstand any challenge that comes your way?

How? How will you do these things? How will you turn your unyielding hope to action? To a way of life?

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